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Telefonica, the owner of the O2 brand, has set up a new division to exploit its massive heap of customer data. This means selling punters' movement patterns and the number of people ambling through a particular spot to anyone with the cash.

Telefónica Dynamic Insights will sift through the data to see what's worth selling, while market research biz Gfk will hawk the information. The first product, Smart Steps, is fully anonymised, just selling the number of people walking past a particular location, but add information about where they came from and the bundle becomes quite valuable.

Telefonica emphasises the power of big data for social good, suggesting the Smart Steps could be used "to help town councils measure how many more people visit their high street after the introduction of free car parking, farmers markets, or late night shopping", but one has to wonder how many local councils will stump up the money.

Not that it should be expensive, once the analysis tools are in place it's just a matter of crunching the numbers. Telefonica, in common with all European mobile operators, is required to store two years' worth of location data for every customer in case the police take an interest, so the information is all cluttering up the place regardless.

Neither is Telefonica alone in selling location data: Vodafone, for example, provides tracking information to TomTom for its real-time traffic information, and other operators have similar deals though they're not always so blatant about it.

It's always been strange to see demonstrators and police producing wildly divergent numbers for those attending a protest, while the network operators have long been sitting on surprisingly accurate figures. Having those statistics on the open market will surely enable one side, or the other, to prove its case.

Mass analysis of this type has few privacy implications, but there's an ever-present temptation to inspect closer which is a concern. Having a visible department selling the data should increase transparency and let us see what's being sold, for as long as we keep watching. ®

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